Chinese prisons: Horror and reform
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - Prisoner Li Qiaoming's death was the first in Chinese penal history ever attributed to a game of hide-and-seek. Given the public protests it sparked and the official calls for prison reform prompted by those protests, it will hopefully be the last.

The death of 24-year-old Li last month in southwestern Yunnan province was just one of the countless fatalities that occur every year behind the security cloak of China's notorious prison network, but the official explanation in Li's case was so outlandish that it attracted the notice of China's growing and increasingly assertive band of netizens, who cried foul.

According to police authorities in Jinning county, where Li had been incarcerated on the charge of illegal logging, the Yuxi farmer died from head injuries sustained when, blindfolded, he ran into a prison wall on February 8 while playing a game called "eluding the cat", a Chinese version of hide-and-seek. Li was hospitalized for his injuries but died four days later.

Li's father, Li Defa, who viewed his son's corpse, told local media that his head was swollen and his body "covered with purple abrasions" that were not consistent with the police report. Netizens were outraged and even mainstream media called for an independent investigation.

To appease rising public ire, Yunnan officials invited a panel of 15 netizens and journalists to inspect the detention center in which Li had been fatally injured. But when the panel's visit turned into a sham that produced no evidence to contradict the police report, outrage only heightened.

Meanwhile, officials in Yunnan's capital of Kunming, sensing the public mood, launched their own investigation into Li's death, ultimately concluding that the prisoner had been killed by three cellmates who, after beating him, fabricated the hide-and-seek story. This conclusion, of course, may also be false. But public anger was assuaged by the identification of the alleged culprits, as well as by the promise that officials at the detention center in which Li was housed will be punished for their negligence and that so-called "jail bullies" - inmates appointed by wardens as often violent enforcers of prison rules - will no longer be tolerated.

The Li case made prison reform one of the hot topics discussed during the annual meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC) earlier this month in Beijing.

Presenting his agency's work report to the NPC, procurator general Cao Jianming promised to improve oversight of courts and prisons to prevent bullying, torture, unjustified detentions and other abuses of human rights.

Former vice minister of justice Duan Zhengkun also made a pointed critique of the country's prison system, calling for the administration of prisons to be taken away from the Ministry of Public Security.

"Detention houses should not be managed by public security departments," Duan was quoted in the China Daily as saying, "because they make the arrests and sometimes torture the accused to force them to confess."

Sometimes stating the obvious, as Duan has done, is the greatest contribution that can be made to a debate. Clearly, China's criminal justice system will not rid itself of intimidation, bullying and outright torture until some checks and balances have been put in place. With security forces currently empowered to arrest, interrogate and imprison - as well as to investigate any alleged abuses that may occur during this multi-faceted process - there should be little wonder that the system has failed to protect the rights of the accused.

Lack of confidence in the criminal justice system was embarrassingly apparent when the work reports for the Supreme Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate were delivered to the NPC. In what is usually a rubber-stamp parliament, more than 500 of the 2,898 delegates voted not to accept the two reports, and nearly 200 more abstained from voting.

Those dissenting delegates were no doubt thinking about the public outrage provoked by Li's death in Yunnan. But a number of other cases have also come to light in the wake of the NPC meeting.

Hu Fenqiang, a suspect in a number of robberies and assaults dating back to 2007, was declared dead on March 12 after collapsing in a detention center in the city of Xiangtan in south-central Hunan province, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The agency reported that police officers who interrogated Hu had been suspended from duty while an investigation into the prisoner's death continued. Xiangtan city officials have promised a speedy, thorough and fair investigation.

In another case, suspected murderer Xu Gengrong, 19, reportedly died on March 8 at a Danfeng county detention center in northwestern Shaanxi province. Xu's death raised public alarm after friends and relatives accused police of torture.

The Beijing News reported that Xu had confessed to the murder of a schoolgirl a week before he died, but there were telltale signs that the confession was forced. A relative present at Xu's autopsy told the paper that his naval cavity was full of blood, his head covered with bruises and his brain swollen with fluid.

Xu's relatives led a protest at the entrance to the county government office, and investigators have since charged two police officers with "dereliction of duty" in the case.

Reports of Xu's death surfaced after news that another prisoner in a detention center in southern Hainan province had been beaten to death by fellow inmates because he refused to remove his clothes before taking a shower. The head and deputy head of the center, located in the city of Danzhou, have been detained, as has a police officer who allegedly witnessed the beating but did nothing to stop it.

Again in Hunan, two inmates in juvenile detention centers - Xia Haixing, 18, and Qiu Xialong, 17 - also died under suspicious circumstances this month. And, again, it was family members, posting photographs of their bodies online, who rallied the public to their cause.

Horrible as these cases appear, they represent only the tip of the iceberg in a system that is designed to deny basic human rights and to snuff out life itself in the interest of the state. But the fact that they have come so prominently to light is a promising development. It was only last November that a United Nations panel accused China of "routine and widespread use of torture" on suspects in police custody, in answer to which Beijing promptly denounced the panel members as prejudiced and the report as "untrue and unprofessional".

But now, thanks to reports started by Chinese netizens and then picked up by mainstream media, these recent cases have sparked a debate that could result in meaningful reform.

That reform, however, must go beyond the procuratorate's promise to increase monitoring and inspections at prisons and detention centers. As Duan and a number of academics have suggested, the management of China's prisons must be taken out of the hands of the police and turned over to another authority, such as the Ministry of Justice.

Without this check on police power, the horror stories behind the bars of Chinese prisons will continue.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at

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